Most Theology starts with an experience with God. Luther had an encounter with God’s love and grace that led him to rethink his theology and started to reshape the theology of his time. I’d say that theology without an initial experience is mere philosophy. Good theology will also not stop there. It starts with an experience and again leads to an experience. We do not follow a book, we follow a person! The Bible is the window through which we can see and experience the person we follow: Jesus. Good theology then acts as a door to step through to experience Jesus again. In that sense will good theology lead to a good experience, shallow theology will lead to a shallow experience, bad theology will lead to a bad experience and wrong theology will lead to a wrong experience. Theology in a nutshell describes how we see God and how we see ourselves in relation to God. So a distorted view of Him will always lead us to experience him in a distorted way. Better to have an experience with God that leads us to a better theology to invite us into an even better experience with God than to have theology without any experience with God at all!
The above quote
is from probably the longest thread from Vineyard Theology Forum’s page on Facebook. I loved reading the dialogue between how are experiences shape and give life to our theology (or understanding of God). I gave my life to Christ at a Lutheran church in Upper Arlington, Ohio in 1986 when I was a junior in High School. I could relate to Luther because I felt like I was never good enough to have a relationship with God. I remember prior to going through confirmation, I met with Pastor Jim Wessel who was the senior pastor at the time. He reminded me that:
Eph 2:8-10 ESV For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, (9) not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (10) For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Pastor Wessel reminded me that I could not earn my salvation, I could not make myself right with God, and I couldn’t come to God in my own strength. I would never measure up to God’s holiness. Yet despite my brokenness, God saved me because of his grace. Grace is a gift of God that we do not deserve. So, I agree with the above that our experiences do shape our understanding and our relationship with God. Our experiences can hinder our relationship with God, or draw us to God. That is what happened to me. I was a seeker (Matt. 6:33). I was someone tormented like Luther with the thought of his own sin and brokenness. I was desperate to be set free. I knew I needed a savior especially after a youth retreat earlier that year.
BUT, the opposite can be true where our theology can shape our experience with God. Many conservative Evangelicals (not to name names) would agree with this. That based upon our beliefs and faith, it will shape our experiences and worldview, not the other way around.
I believe that the answer is what Rich Nathan from the Columbus Vineyard calls the “radical middle”, or “both and”. The danger with theology shaping our experiences is that it breeds tribalism (us vs. them), legalism, and judgmental-ism. The problem with our experiences shaping what we believe is that it can lead us away from what is true about God, and about who we are. Those that follow this approach (charismatics and others), can become heretical and believe something contrary what is revealed in God’s Word and through the creeds believed throughout church history. Thus there is always going to be tension between the two.